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Embracing the Mission

Seeing Our Neighbors as Family Members

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In many elite universities, there is an event called “tap night” in which prospective initiates gather in a common area and the members of elite societies walk through the crowd and tap on the shoulder of those they intend to initiate.

In the Church, the word “outreach” has picked up a lot of baggage over the years. For many, it means some contrived activity designed to put our information into the hands of the “others.” But for lots of others it retains its primary meaning, which I would define as any experience which demonstrates care for our neighbors. There was a time when the people “outside our walls” had a common culture and worldview that was susceptible to a common invitation or “shoulder tap.” That time has passed. There is no longer a single outreach that will rally large numbers of North Americans to enter our churches. Now we face the opportunity of meeting our neighbors wherever we can identify commonality.

In 1983, while a pastoral intern at the Houston Central and Houston Northwest Seventh-day Adventist Churches, I presented a five-day plan to smokers in Houston with a local physician, Sukhdev Peganyee. This was intended for a very narrow group of people: Houston smokers who wanted to quit, but were unable to. These days, the five-day plan has been supplanted by a profit-based smoking cessation industry. Yet, many connection points are still available.

Today, we may want to leave the secret society model of shoulder taps and initiations and adopt the community model. This means identifying commonality with our neighbors. These commonality groups might include people on our street or apartment building who want better health, are hurting or depressed, are getting married or divorced, are addicted, are lonely, etc. In short, our neighbors are the same people Jesus loved and died to save. 

There Is No Them

The first step toward a community model of outreach requires us to change our mindset from “Us and them” to “Us.” We are all “Us.” There is no “them.” Entering the church is a beautiful experience that provides us with a network possessing all the potential support and comfort inherent in the concept of family. Sometimes this leads toward a focus on those relationships to the exclusion of others. Our mission, if we decide to accept it, is to see all our neighbors as potential family members. 

Identify Engaging Assets

The next step is to identify assets available to engage in communal activities. Our first and greatest assets are the fruits of the spirit. Galatians 5:22 outlines them this way: “ But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control,” (NLT). To these assets, we add talented, experienced people who can share. In most cases the assets also include facilities for both instructional and social gatherings.

Grow the Family 

Congregations that focus on common holidays to introduce guests to the family take advantage of this practical tool. Christmas, Easter, Veterans Day, and homecomings, among other special events, provide these opportunities throughout each year. 

At the Keene Seventh-day Adventist Church, we have a huge production called “The Pageant.” This production happens every year on the Sabbath before Easter. Sometimes, many people question the connection between the pageant and traditional outreach evangelism. We feel that it is simply good to have people turn their hearts and minds toward the story of Jesus. Many visitors not of our faith or of any faith attend this celebration of the resurrection.

The Keene Church has reinvented the idea of “Camp Meeting.” As we all know, that phrase comes out of the last century, and its focus suggests internal interests. However, in Keene this has become more of a homecoming for our church. Many who have been part of the church in the past reconnect for this special occasion and some stay on and reestablish their ties with the church. Connected with “Camp Meeting” is our children’s programming, Vacation Bible School. This programming is a huge opportunity to gather the neighborhood children into a saving relationship with Jesus.

Another part of the Keene Church’s annual programming is Christmas. Since we are part of and connected with Keene Adventist Elementary School, Chisholm Trail Academy, and Southwestern Adventist University, we are not devoid of Christmas programing. Yet, each of these programs are the perfect opportunity to invite friends and neighbors. It not only benefits  the church but each of the schools, also. Plays and musicals depict the first Advent of Christ while many people in our community are thinking less commercially and more spiritually of Christmas.

Veteran’s Day is a great time to connect with a segment of our population that knows a lot about service. Our church has honored our veterans in several different ways over the years, but this year we are putting on a program that says “Thank You for Your Service.” Some who have spent years in the military have never been appreciated for what they have given up. Lives have been lost, generations have been cut short, families have suffered, and sometimes, an ungrateful population just sits by. A “thank you”  activity welcomes visitors to the church who may have never been here before.

Many churches provide community services to people with specific, identifiable needs. At Keene Church we have a community center that we call “Great Stuff.” It is a house across from the church where we sell donated goods, “stuff!” The proceeds from this small enterprise provides the funds necessary to staff the facility, but these funds also fund a thriving outreach to our community.

This outreach is called Community Monday, a ministry of the church through Adventist Community Services Ministries. People apply for assistance with rent, utility bills, or family assistance. All the applications are reviewed and depending on the funds available, we pay the amount agreed upon to the utility or landlord, on the applicant's behalf. These are just some of the ways that we can introduce people to our family. We hope you can, too.

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James Winegardner is the Senior Pastor and Don Gibson is an Associate Pastor of the Keene Seventh-day Adventist Church.  

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